Maria Calderon, 44, and her mother, Maria Cruz-Gonzalez, 77, arrived at a local emergency room seeking treatment for Cruz-Gonzalez’s flu symptoms Sunday morning and stayed until being discharged without a room Monday, she said.
Now, after a second, two-hour wait Wednesday, they finally found a room at the University of Texas Medical Branch’s new facility in Webster, Calderon said.
Their experience isn’t unusual — local emergency service providers increasingly must wait several hours for space to open at one of the mainland emergency rooms, a development that has caused headaches for departments, said Gerald Grimm, chief of the La Marque Fire Department.
“If the emergency rooms don’t have beds for us to bring patients in, then it requires us to stay with them until they’re safe,” Grimm said. “That takes units out of service, meaning they can’t respond to other problems.”
More and more visitors each year to emergency rooms across the country are straining the system and causing administrators to examine how such services are offered.
It also is one of the many reasons the medical branch saw opportunity knocking when it came to opening the Webster facility, said Katrina Lambrecht, vice president for health system operations and regional hospitals.
“There are always going to be environmental factors, ebbs and flows in terms of value,” Lambrecht said. “But much like with inpatient beds, we feel there is additional need for emergency rooms.”
Crowding, delays and diversions at emergency rooms have become a problem across the country as the number of people visiting them have increased about 44 percent between 1990 and 2009, from 88 million to 127 million, according to a report from the American Clinical and Climatological Association.
While experiences like Calderon’s show the problem is definitely happening, the specific reason behind the trend is harder to identify.
One of things that sends people to emergency rooms is a federal law requires emergency departments to stabilize and treat someone regardless of whether they have insurance or the ability to pay.
Officials with HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake, however, attributed much of the recent crowding to a particularly bad flu and allergy breakout.
HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake used to be called Clear Lake Regional Medical Center. HCA Healthcare, which is one of the largest health care providers in the United States, also operates HCA Houston Mainland, previously called Mainland Medical Center.
“Flu season peaked in late February, and while the 2019 flu season overall has been relatively mild, this March has been the worst for flu in many years,” said Todd Caliva, CEO of the facility. “In Houston, we’re also seeing some of the highest rates of pollen in the country, which can exacerbate allergies, asthma and other conditions.”
The population growth of the northern part of Galveston County, such as in League City, also contributes to a rising demand for emergency services, Caliva said.
But Nichol Green, EMS coordinator for La Marque Fire Department, said there are more structural issues behind some of the backups.
“It’s my understanding that staffing shortages are behind some of it,” she said.
Texas is facing a shortage of nurses in the next 15 years. In 2016, the Texas Center for Nursing and Workforce Studies released a report that said Texas will face a shortage of all types of nurses by 2030. The anticipated shortages included a projected deficit of nearly 60,000 registered nurses, according to the report.
Furthermore, operating an emergency room often is the most costly part of a hospital, Lambrecht said.
“Any operation that is 24/7, because of the need for staffing, lends itself to being more expensive,” she said. “You can’t predict when a patient is going to walk in.”
And educating the workforce necessary to staff an emergency room also is expensive, said Annette Macias-Hoag, vice president of health system and service line operations at the medical branch.
The medical branch opened its emergency room at the University of Texas Medical Branch Clear Lake campus on Saturday, in the building that contained the former Bay Area Regional Medical Center, which closed abruptly last year, Lambrecht said.
The emergency room officially opened at about 7 a.m., but already had received its first patient by about 6:55 a.m., Lambrecht said.
The 23-bed facility had received 112 patients at the emergency room by later Wednesday morning, Lambrecht said.